9:48 AM EST, January 1, 2013
The Magic played the defending champion Heat for the first time since Nik Vucevic left in that nasty trade saga.
That was Dwight Howard.
Just got the big men confused after watching Dwight, er, Nik.
Playing the game of his young NBA life, Vucevic collected a franchise-record 29 rebounds, 20 points and two blocks in the Magic's near ambush of the Heat on Monday night.
The ridiculously undermanned Magic lost 112-110, but it was a nice way for Dwight, I mean, Nik, to ring in the new year.
And maybe ring in the Magic's new era, which must include establishing the 22-year-old as their center of the future.
"I think we'll keep him," delighted CEO Alex Martins said.
You couldn't blame Martins and GM Rob Hennigan if they gloated a little, considering Vucevic was supposedly a 7-footer throw-in they got in the widely panned Dwight deal.
Vucevic has shown promise all season. But against the Heat, he gave the Magic hope that one of the two toughest positions to fill (the other being ¿ point guard) is being filled for the next decade.
OK, he's Dwight Lite, but here's the point:
Skilled bigs aren't over-crowding lobbies, taking a number and waiting to star. Vucevic is a building block that can turn the Magic into a team the Heat will have to brace for someday.
"He had a heck of a night," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "He's a physical guy, but he's skilled at the same time. That team has a bright future."
Vucevic exploited Miami in the paint. Perhaps the Heat's only weakness — other than their 82-game boredom — is in the middle. It didn't impede them in beating Oklahoma City for the title last season, but then the Thunder also rely on outside shooters.
Why do you think the Lakers were so ecstatic to land Howard?
The Magic should feel the same about Vucevic. He broke a 19-year-old franchise rebounding record set by the first great center to leave Orlando — Shaquille O'Neal. "To break his record means a lot given how dominant he was," Vucevic said.
Jacque Vaughn called Vucevic's effort "one of the most satisfying moments" in his rookie season as a coach so far. The silver linings in losses come on nights like this, when young players shine.
And to think that Vaughn said a signature game such as this can "restore [Vucevic's] confidence." Amazing what might happen when Nik starts bragging and beating his chest, although it's certainly not in his soft-spoken, polite nature.
The young coach sat down his tired young center recently and reminded him "how long the season is.
"We're asking a lot of him. He's logging a lot of minutes," Vaughn said. "It's as mentally grinding as physically grinding. That's the great thing I saw tonight from him. The mental toughness."
He could use some physical toughness as well. He isn't in the same stratosphere with Howard defensively.
Vucevic vows to hit the weight room more, but he won't ever appear on the cover of body-building magazines like Dwight.
If he could just get a little nasty streak, he'd be a top-10 center soon. Vaughn laughed and said, "We don't need him to be one of Wayne Gretzky's brutes. We don't want him to be someone he isn't."
Which is why Vaughn said he hasn't mentioned the previous center's name to Vucevic or anyone else on his team.
"I'm not going to replace Dwight. He's best big man in the NBA," Vucevic said. "I can't come in and replace him."
Maybe not, but Nik did a pretty good Dwight impression on New Year's Eve.
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